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‘Like Disneyland’: Crowds could mean vehicle fees at Foothills Park

Foothills Park
Kristen Zuraek/Special to the Town Crier
Los Altos Hills resident Kristen Zuraek’s horse stares at her as vehicles line Page Mill Road outside her house. Visitors of nearby Foothills Park have been parking haphazardly outside the Palo Alto preserve’s entrance since Jan. 9, the day Palo Alto began restricting vehicle access on weekends and holidays.

Since opened to the general public Dec. 17, Foothills Park has become “like Disneyland,” “Golden Gate Park” and “a tourist trap,” according to participants at last week’s Palo Alto City Council meeting.

“What I saw there is – you know, it’s not supposed to be an amusement park. At least most people don’t think it’s supposed to be an amusement park. It’s inconsistent with being a preserve,” Councilmember Eric Filseth said. “So I think we need to move forward on trying to get this under control.”

Yes, it’s been a bit crowded, admitted Daren Anderson, division manager of Palo Alto Open Space, Parks and Golf.

Through Jan. 2, the 1,400-acre park abutting Los Altos Hills hosted approximately six times the number of visitors it did during that same period in 2019. On Jan. 16 alone, an estimated 2,600 people entered the park throughout the day.

To stem the sudden tide of humanity, the council Jan. 19 approved an amendment to the city’s municipal code allowing a temporary $6-per-vehicle entrance fee starting March 4. The change, however, is contingent on a second council reading of the proposed ordinance Monday, and the passage of a future emergency ordinance could accelerate the policy change start date to Feb. 20.

The council voted 6-1, Councilmember Alison Cormack dissenting, to approve the measure, which sets visitation to 400 people at one time but allows city manager Ed Shikada the discretion to increase the number to 500.

Councilmember Greg Tanaka’s motion also directs staff to return to the council at a future meeting with an emergency ordinance and directs the Parks and Recreation Commission to return with recommendations about potential fees, discounts, rules and enforcement policies.

A lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California filed against the city of Palo Alto influenced the council’s decision to open the park to all. The lawsuit alleged restrictions violated nonresidents’ First Amendment rights of travel, speech and assembly, and perpetuated a history of racism in the city.

Voting 5-2 in November, the council set visitation to 750 people at a time for the first 90 days, from Dec. 17 onward, but the winter holidays, the desire to venture outdoors as an escape from COVID boredom and the novelty of the park’s new availability has attracted unprecedented crowds.

Starting Jan. 9, city officials implemented a temporary measure closing Foothills to vehicles on weekends and holidays once the capacity limit is met. Thereafter, only bicycles and pedestrians may enter until 3 p.m.

Negative impacts

Some Hills residents who live near the Page Mill Road park entrance are exasperated by the number of vehicles circling and making illegal U-turns in search of parking along the busy road. Encouraged by Hills officials who sent an email Jan. 14 notifying town residents of last week’s virtual council meeting, two women identifying themselves as Hills residents delivered public comments.

“The opening of the park has been an enormous negative impact on our surrounding communities,” said Kristen Zuraek, who lives on Page Mill. “The masses traveling to and from the park are unmanageable.”

Sue Welch, a Hills resident who also lives near the park, is concerned about the crowds’ potential impacts to the environment and urged Palo Alto council members to close the park to all visitors until an environmental assessment and a use plan are completed.

“There’s absolutely no question that the new ordinance changing access is having impacts,” Welch said. “Many of the letters to the council have reported these impacts, notably on traffic, on wildlife and other biological resources.”

Palo Alto residents spoke up, too. Some opposed entrance fees of any kind, and others urged fees for cyclists and pedestrians as well as vehicles.

Jill O’Nan, a Palo Alto resident who identified herself as handicapped, said a bicyclist ran her off a trail recently and used profane language. Bicycles are not allowed on trails within the park.

O’Nan questioned why she should have to pay twice for admittance – through both taxes and parking fees – when residents living nearby don’t have to.

“People who are privileged enough to live in $7 million homes in the neighborhood of that park can certainly afford to walk in and pay the same entrance fees that I have to pay,” she said.

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